Some thoughts on KW Jeter’s Fiendish Schemes
by Kayo Blackmoore
K. W. Jeter
K.W. Jeter is credited with coining the term “Steam Punk”. In 1986 he applied it to his then upcoming novel (published in 1987) Infernal Devices. The novel cemented his role as one of the originators of all things steam punk. Although there are some that would argue that elements of the genre were present in his earlier novel Morlock Night an honorary sequel to HG Wells’ The Time Machine.
With a build up like that, I was very excited about laying my eyeballs on Fiendish Schemes. I have read a couple of K.W’s other books (Morlock Night, Goodbye Horizontal and Noir) but not Infernal Devices. So I took the ‘Stand Alone Sequel’ claim on the front cover as a challenge to see if I could read it on its own.
I have to admit I was taken by surprise. I was swept along the story by the beautiful Victorian-era way of speaking and setting. Not once was I assaulted with the standard steamy tropes. No Brass Goggles, no Airships not even a Top Hat or Bustle. Instead, K.W. painted his alternative London with new and original ways of a steam-powered life. For example: walking lighthouses. Why spend your money building a lighthouse that is only destined to stay in one spot? Not when you can have them walk up and down the coastlines on steam-powered spider legs, to choose the best promontories from which to shine their lights.
There were some parts that were a little more difficult to stomach. I refer to the philosophical debates regarding seas and oceans being sentient beings based on the changes in the tides. This of course leading to a floating church ‘Mission to Cetaceans’ in order to preach the word of God to Whales.
The main character George Dower acts as the stories’ narrator and is integral to the story, but he never actually does anything. At the beginning of the book, he attempts suicide but even that get interrupted by a confidence man who convinces him he can makes scads of money instead.
The steam powered machines in this London do not contain internal boilers. Instead, they all must be hooked directly to the steam pipes that have spider-webbed England and gain their motive power from the Steam Mines in the north. (Steam mines? Really?) It does allow for descriptions of citizens being horribly scalded by faulty steam leaks on a regular basis. So much so that the leaky steam has environmental effects on downtown London. Hot and muggy instead of cold and drizzly.
Normal everyday citizens don’t get to enjoy the marvel of steam. No, instead, this privilege is only available to the filthy rich, who instead of getting by pampered steam-powered butlers, surgically transform themselves into locomotive behemoths all in the name of experiencing new ways of kinky sex. Yes, K.W. has coined another new term… ‘Fex’ and the derivative ‘Fexual’. To mean Ferric or steam-powered sex.
About three-quarters though the book the reader finds out that all of the steam-powered transformation of London is based on schemes within schemes in the interests of political power. The transformed Prime Minister, a.k.a. the ‘Iron Lady,’ wants to get rid of all the steam pipes and shift over to coal power in order to squelch the Steam Mine workers (remember them?) union uprising. All of which culminates in a Godzilla-like confrontation in downtown London between the now Coal-Powered Prime Minister and The Colossus of Black Pool, an ambulatory Lighthouse three times the size of the regular walking lighthouses.
If you don’t want the ending ruined, look away now….
The Colossus has an ace up its sleeve in this fight. By shutting off all of its own steam relief valves, the lighthouse effectively turns itself into a walking Steam Bomb that flattens London.
In summary, Fiendish Schemes is a fun read. Just be prepared to swallow some really silly concepts. Steam Mines? Sentient Oceans? Ferric Sex? The narrator tells a good story but never steps into the action. Kind of sad really. It is almost reminiscent of the main characters of an unnamed New-England writer that I like. There are a few cryptic references to the previous novel, but they are few and don’t derail the story. I even like the Jonathan Coulthart cover art. Now… I think I will try a find a copy of Infernal Devices and see if I can read it as a prequel.
Critic at Large